Did you ever think that there would such a thing as a celebrity transportation commissioner? Neither did I. But New York City’s Janette Sadik-Khan has become not just a heroine to transit activists since she began in 2007, she has been the subject of multiple profiles in glossy magazines. First The American Prospect and now New York magazine have sung her praises at great length. Sadik-Khan has been making headlines by trying to build “complete streets” that no longer favor cars over bicyclists and pedestrians. Since her efforts are taking place in the most high-profile of locations — along 9th Avenue and Broadway in midtown Manhattan — they are getting a lot of media attention.
That is all well and good. But as I noted in my own Prospect feature on urban and regional planning, New York is already light years ahead of the rest of the country in being free of auto dependence. The real challenge we face as a country is not perfecting New York but improving the suburbs and newer cities, where the overwhelming majority of population growth has occurred in recent years. As I demonstrate in my piece, by visiting Leesburg, Virginia, a typical American exurb, without a car, local and regional planning has made most exurbs entirely dependent on cars. But it does not need to be that way. Looking at the town of Kentlands, Maryland, I saw that new urbanist communities in the suburbs could be pedestrian-friendly and transit-accessible. In fact, in Germany, there is a new suburb that has banned cars entirely.
Of course, we should also focus on reducing the inequality between inner-city public schools and suburban schools so as to encourage the re-population of American cities that have been decimated by white flight. But there will always be bedroom communities. The nation’s first suburbs, such as Brooklyn Heights, are now considered models of urban living. New York may benefit from Janette Sadik-Khan but the suburbs need her, or people like her, much more.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.